Exploring Cliff Dwellings

Being interested in Native American Indians, I instantly knew my son had to go to Mesa Verde National Park (which is also a World Heritage Site). This is where the remains of hundreds of ancient cliff dwellings that belonged to the Pueblo people are still preserved. Conveniently, its located just 35 miles from where we were staying in Durango, CO.

There are over 5000 archeological sites at Mesa Verde. We were allowed to climb up into the cliff IMG_2008dwellings and see how Native American Indians lived up to 1500 years ago. Being able to crawl down into the ancient kivas where it is believed religious rituals and political meetings were held feels like getting a front seat view of history. If visiting with kids, it’s definitely best with school-aged children that can climb the ladders into the dwellings.

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I would highly recommend taking a ranger guided tour. They are $5 and are worth every single penny. They give great insight into how the Indians lived day to day, along with belief systems, history, and were great at answering questions. I got a real impression that they love their jobs and love this land. Our ranger talked passionately about the importance of preserving such historical places and taking care of the land.

Not only did we visit cliff dwellings, but we also visited Coyote Village. This is a village that has been excavated and stabilized. You can walk along the top exploring the different rooms and structures. It’s like a dream come true for a kid. The ultimate historic playground.

 

Sledding the Great Sand Dunes

Sledding the Great Sand Dunes has been something that has been on my bucket list for quite awhile. I can’t remember where this idea originated, but I knew it was something that was going to happen on this trip.

We woke early and grabbed breakfast on the road. We drove to Alamosa and rented sleds that are set up for sledding on sand at Kristi Mountain Sports. The sales assistant was very helpful and pointed us to a 2 person sled. For $18 we got the sled and a puck of wax for the day.

We headed to Great Sand Dunes National Park. I was ecstatic to be marking this off my bucket list. There were not a lot of people so we didn’t have to worry about crowds. We stopped by the Visitor Center to get our bearings. I read that the we were at 8000 ft elevation (here we go with altitude again). The dunes can be up to 700 feet tall.

It was super windy but the Medona Creek was dry so we didn’t have to wade through it. I IMG_1913put on my small backpack with water and supplies and carried the sled up to the dunes. The wind blew against me leaving me to fight the sled and wind like I was a ship and the sled was the sail.

Climbing the dunes was intense. For every step forward, the sand sunk under my feet and I felt like I went one step back. Fighting sand, wind, and altitude I had to slow my pace. My kiddo scrambled up the dune like it was just another rock. When I finally reached him patiently waiting for me at the time I had to ask him to wait. I couldn’t catch my breath and then promptly threw up. Talk about a full body workout!

Once I caught  my breath we excitedly hopped on the sled. He sat on the front and I sat on the back as I pushed us over the edge. We flew down the sand dune so fast I could barely hold on. It was exhilarating and all I could do was laugh. When we hit the bottom, the sled stuck in the sand and we both flipped. Fortunately I flipped right over the top of him. We landed in sand so it wasn’t a bad landing. We both had faces full of sand despite the sunglasses. We decided to do it again.

IMG_1914Again we hiked to the top. I paced myself a little more this time trying to keep from getting sick again. Once at the top we jumped on and flew back down. This time Parker face planted into the sand and I again flew over him. I was laughing so hard, but he was not so happy. With our feet out to the side trying to steer as we flew down the side of the sand dune, the sand shot up like water and hit him in the face. His eyes were full of sand.

In an effort to help, I dug through my backpack where I keep saline solution. I attempted to block the blowing sand by putting my jacket around him. After flushing his eyes several times we gave up. He could not do another ride. We had sand in every possible crevice and I could feel it crunch in my teeth.

We headed back to the car to get out of the wind and attempt to flush his eyes again. If I had to do it all over again, I would make sure to bring goggles.

His eyes were irritated and red. He was desperately unhappy and I didn’t know what to do. We watched as the wind blasted our car with sand and the view was blocked by a brown cloud of sand. I pulled over again and flushed his eyes. I begged him not to rub them and explained that he had probably scratched them. I tried to distract him with navigating for me. He promptly found Zapata Falls on the map and asked if we could go there. I said definitely and followed his guidance.

Turning off of the highway I had to guide my car slowly through the massive potholes that covered the road. I secretly wondered if I was making a huge mistake and if I was going to get my station wagon stuck. I continued on.

We got to a parking lot and grabbed our small packs. We headed up a trail. As we IMG_1920climbed we stepped over snow and ice. Soon we were walking on the ice all together. We had came upon a woman and two men. My son, not knowing a stranger, engaged them in conversation. We trekked the rest of the way over the frozen stream through the canyons. Just as my son was telling me we needed walking sticks I fell. I fell hard. I got back up and pursued forward.

When we turned around a canyon wall, there stood a giant frozen waterfall. You could hear water flowing behind it. In the ice that we stood on, a hole had formed revealing the IMG_1919freezing water below. One of the men we met decided to take off his shoes and get in. I could only imagine how painful that kind of cold would be on the bare skin.

After playing awhile at the waterfall I decided to head to Durango, Colorado. About a decade before I had stayed at the Strater Hotel. It was by complete serendipity that I found this hotel a decade earlier. Once in the antique decorated rooms in the century old hotel, I read the journal left in each room. Most pages mentioned a hot tub room. When I asked the front desk, they told me it could be reserved in hour increments. Only you had access to it. Remembering this place, I booked a room in hopes that the hot tub would soothe our sore bodies and help wash out the hiding sand that we couldn’t possibly reach.

After an initial shower which covered our shower and bathroom in sand, we went to the hot tub. I found sand in my ears and various other unmentionable places for at least a week afterwards.

We ended the evening at the restaurant connected to the hotel. A country singer with a guitar sang Merle Haggard songs while we ate. Parker was so tired he nearly fell asleep at the table. I paid the bill and we turned in for the night fully exhausted.

Exploring Colorado Springs

We woke early and enjoyed the complimentary breakfast at the hotel. We set off for Garden of the Gods. I had heard a lot about it but had never been. My son started out less than impressed. When we entered the park, it seemed like a giant tease to him. We IMG_1905walked along the rocks and read all the signs that said no climbing. Just before we gave up, the rocks got bigger and there was no rules regarding climbing.

True to his boyhood nature he climbed every rock in the park. He scrambled up crevices, climbed through holes created by thousands of years of erosion, and throughly enjoyed himself. We had a picnic and then decided to head to Pikes Peak.

I bought tickets for the Cog Train to the top of Pikes Peak. We waited patiently among the crowds of people for our train. We sat facing another couple as we headed up the mountain. The views were impressive and at some points snow was high over the window. I found out that the train had just opened that day due to the massive amount of snow. As we ascended the 14,000 feet I felt myself getting light headed. This was a new sensation for me so I didn’t realize I was experience altitude sickness.

IMG_1908.JPGOnce we reached the top I stepped out into the cold mountain air and felt incredibly dizzy. Everything spun and I felt like I might pass out. We went into the gift shop and decided quickly that it was way too crowded. We walked around the top of Pikes Peak taking in the massive view and watching our breaths in the cold air. It was cold enough that when I mentioned returning to the train to wait for our departure my son was in total agreement. I was so dizzy I could barely walk.

On our way back down the mountain I started to feel a little better, but was still a bit off. My son began complaining of feeling sick to his stomach. He laid in my lap for the ride down. When we reached the bottom we both felt ill. Being from Kansas, you don’t get a lot of opportunity to experience altitude like that.

 

IMG_1907It didn’t take long for us to start feeling better. I decided to go out for dinner at a
IMG_1906restaurant that was inside an old Boeing KC-97 tanker, called the Airplane Restaurant.  I knew my son would love it. As anticipated, he was ecstatic.The food was nothing to write home about, but the experience was definitely worth it. Booths were set up where the passenger seating would normally be. I lost him for most of dinner because the cockpit was open for children. There was a bazillion buttons and switches, and definitely sparked his imagination.

With full tummies and tired bodies, I drove to Monte Vista, Colorado while he slept. I checked in after dark and the older man behind the desk talked me like I was a friend. Each room has a theme and we stayed in the Wild Mustang room. I had to laugh when I carried my sleeping son in and laid him on the bed. The decor made it very clear why this room was the Wild Mustang room.

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The next morning when we woke my son sat up, looked around and said, “Well, this is interesting”.

400 year old hacienda

Our bus bumped along a small avenue lined with giant century-old eucalyptus trees. Driving
around the fountain in the middle of the driveway, we arrived in front of Hacienda La Cienega. This hacienda is one of the most historical in Ecuador at over 400 years old. It sits at the slopes of the Cotopaxi volcano. Today, it serves as a boutique hotel and restaurant, though its history has been preserved. 


Lunch was a variety of native food. The best part of lunch was when a local band came through and we were serenaded. There was even one Spanish song that I was familiar with and was able to sing along to. 

17342948_10210179874986906_7229302235458948416_nOnce our lunch and singing was over, the band displayed some small musical instruments and CD’s for sale. My son gravitates towards anything musical (or possibly to anything that makes noise) and picked out a flute. A member from the band came and gave him a quick lesson on howFullSizeRender (16) to blow into it in order to make sound.

After lunch we wandered the grounds, viewing the original church and gardens. I had a coffee and enjoyed the shade of the ancient trees.

Volcanos and Moonshine

We headed to Banos, Ecuador from Devil’s Cauldron (about 40 km away). It’s near the active Tungurahua and a gateway to the nearby Amazon Basin. On the way there we 17352380_10210366736337885_4052340927093209023_ndrove by a village that was covered by an eruption about a year and a half ago. We saw the scarred remains of a home.

Once in Banos, we had lunch at a small bed and breakfast and spent the next few hours walking around the city. There were lots of tourist shops offering tours to the Amazon and volcano.

Banos has a very artistic flair, with artisans working in doorways and windows and paintings on buildings. It 17264284_10210172410480298_6561258471637593502_nhas a large ex-pat population, and I can see why. If I return to Ecuador, I would want to come back here.

We wandered into a a vegetable ivory shop called, El Cade. The son is the artisan, carving vegetable ivory, and the mother sat in the corner stringing jewelry he created. He gave a demonstration of how he carved a dried tagua nut into a small pitcher. The tagua nut is actually a seed from a certain palm 17353085_10210366801099504_4831787035353403146_ntree. The vegetable ivory resembles elephant ivory and was actually used for buttons before
plastic was popular. The small sculptures and jewelry were inexpensive and made for great souvenirs.

We took our bag of gifts and headed for the market. Outside vendors hacked away at sugar cane with machetes. One vendor was selling sugarcane ginger moonshine along with every other possible thing made of sugarcane. I took a shot of the moonshine and it was exactly as I had expected, enough to take my breath.

A little buzz from my shot of moonshine, I ventured behind the market and found an amazing view of the city.

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We drove away from the city and towards our lodge for the night. We drove into the Valley of Patate and then just above it to Hacienda Manteles. This place was like something out of fairytale. It was chilly and the air was crisp. The slightly smoking volcano loomed not far in the distance.

When I was shown to my room, a sheep and llama were hanging out nearby. It just added to the magic of the place. The rooms were situated so that 3 rooms were
inside one building with a little living room that had a fireplace. I took a shower and then ventured out to take pictures of the grounds. Lil’ man was playing with the random animals and running everywhere.

As it began to get dark I grabbed an alpaca blanket from my room and big bottle of beer. I had Karl meet me on the porch swing set up overlooking the volcano and valley below. Soon we could see every star in the sky. It was very romantic and peaceful.

Of course it didn’t last long and we ventured up for dinner. We served family style in the main dining room and after we sat around with everyone having drinking by the fire and chatting. Eventually our guide broke out a guitar and we all sang along. It was one of those moments that can make an entire trip. Lil’ man fell asleep on the couch and several of us sat near the fire singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. It was a perfect way to end our night.

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Drinking chicha with the natives

Karl and I got up at sunrise and snuck out into the thermal pools outside our room for a soak before everyone else was up. The steam rose off the pools , the sun came up behind the nearby volcano, and I sat drinking my coffee and took it all in. It was a perfect morning. We agreed17309548_10210334916422407_8751021778529238267_n that this is a place we could definitely come back to.

After breakfast, we loaded a bus and drove towards the Amazon basin.  We stopped in a small village to see the wild monkeys. They come into town on days the locals set up market in hopes to find food. We were warned the monkeys can get a little aggressive (they steal stuff) so we needed to take off hats, sunglasses, or anything shiny or colorful.
IMG_0149After a short walk across a very sketchy bridge (that I thought was a pedestrian bridge and turned out to be also for traffic), we made our way to a bunch of trees on a beach right by the market. The monkeys were playing and jumping from tree to tree. On occasion one would jump down and try to take something from someone’s neck or head that hadn’t listened to the instructions of taking these things off. They were a lot of fun to watch.

We eventually loaded back up on the bus and headed to the Amazon Basin. The lower altitude was a little bit of a relief. We made it to a place called La Punta Ahuano on the Napo River (a tributary to the Amazon River). It was pouring rain when we arrived. There was a small shelter that we all crowded under waiting for it to let up a bit before we loaded into motorized canoe to go across the river. Eventually we decided that we are in the rainforest and rain is a part of every day, so climbed onto the boats.

17362435_10211734758594835_6811658986573402061_nThe heat and humidity were intense so the breeze from going upstream felt great. The current was so strong that our boat didn’t go straight against it. We zig zagged back and forth. About 10 minutes later we arrived at Casa del Suizo, our resort set up on a hill overlooking the Amazon Basin. Yet again, I was blown away by our accommodations.

We had to climb a lot of stairs to get up to the resort from the boat. We entered next to a pool surrounded by little hu17342618_10210343014744860_389843342584525691_nts, palm trees, a bar, and an outdoor dining area. We were shown to our rooms, which were just as impressive. It was surrounded by so many exotic plants and flowers. Our balcony had a hammock that Lil’ Man and I instantly took advantage of. It overlooked a courtyard full of more gorgeous trees and flowers.

IMG_0195.JPGOnce settling in a bit, we marinated ourselves in bug spray (even though I hate it, it’s better than all the bad things you can get from a bug bite in the Amazon). We headed out for a visit to a local Quechua family in Ahuano, also called Anaconda Lodge.

img_0233.pngWe were fitted with rubber boots and loaded back into the canoes. We went to an island called Anaconda by the locals. We hiked across a muddy wet area that is often underwater. We continued our hike for about 15 minutes through high grasses and trees. Our boots sucked into the squishy mud and sweat poured down every inch of our bodies. I kept a looIMG_0138k out for any strange snakes or insects. The most interesting thing I spotted was a giant black mass on a tree. At closer look, it was a large grouping of catepillars. I have never seen anything like it.
Eventually we walked into a clearin17155347_10210350718497449_677940779364879196_ng and saw huts on stilts. We had arrived. We climbed the stairs into the hut and found a seat next to a burning fire pit. The heat was already stifling and my clothes were soaked. A barefoot woman sat on the edge of the pit.

Our guide explained that the hut was on stilts because once a year the entire area floods about 5 feet high. The fire is left burning all of the time because the smoke keeps the bugs away. It is women’s work, and they get up at 3 a.m. to start stoking the fire and making breakfast.

The woman sat in the middle of the room with yucca root and sweet potato on a board. She began to mash it to demonstrate how to make chicha, the local alcohol drink offered to guests. We were told, as she was mashing, that this 17308856_10210343037545430_1481689716924246743_n.jpgalcohol was originally created by the maker chewing the root and spitting the saliva into a bowl. This would cause the solution to ferment and eventually turn into alcohol. In the past few years, they learned that if the person making the brew was sick, everyone the drink is given too also fell sick. She then used bark of walking pine to grate sweet potato into the brew to be the fermenting agent.

Once she finished the demonstration, she passed a bowl of 10 day old chicha around for us each to drink out of. I was very happy this was no longer a saliva based solution. I was proud of Lil’ Man for trying it, too. As soon as I tasted it, it reminded me of the intense smell my moms homemade bread use to have while it was rising. It was bitter and I couldn’t have drank more than a sip.

17155566_10210343036985416_2189276111118603188_nAfter our chicha sampling, we went back to the ground where we got a demonstration on blowing darts. We were each given an opportunity to try. Lil’ Man was set on getting a blow dart set until he realized that the ones for sale were just replicas. It didn’t discourage him from trying to shoot the target several times. The blow dart gun was about 5 times bigger than him.

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We finished the day up with hiking back to the canoes and returning to our resort. A shower was required to wash all of the sweat and bug spray off. We were told that bug spray wasn’t required in the resort because ginger was strategically planted. I had no idea that ginger kept the mosquitos away.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon watching Lil’ Man play in the swimming pool with a new friend. Bats swarmed overhead and the kids seemed completely oblivious to it. I had a cocktail and sat under the ceiling fan in the hut enjoying the amazing view and feeling completely blessed.

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Middle of the World

Driving out of Otavala, the landscape that passed outside my window reminded me of
Vietnam. Trash littered the streets, stray dogs ate out of shredded garbage bags, houses were dirty and shabby. It is evident that the country is poor.

We stopped roadside at an ice cream shop. It is 6th generation owned. The owner made homemade sorbet in a large copper bowl that sets on ice and salt. By spinning the copper bowl on the ice and salt, the raspberry and soursop juice poured into the bowl began to freeze. It was a very refreshing treat. Of course I had to try all of the flavors. We waited out a massive afternoon downpour eating the ice cream.

 

After we were done, we headed to the equator. La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World) is the place of the monument marking the Equator. In reality, the equator is actually located 250 yards away.  This was only discovered a few years ago after GPS was invented.

 

 

 

This is definitely a tourist trip, but it’s pretty cool to be able to kiss your love from a different hemisphere, or balance an egg standing up on a nail. Lil’ Man was the egg expert.

We grabbed some lunch at one of the many restaurants and watched local dancers perform native dances. I finally got to try real Ecuadorian food. I ordered several different kinds of empanadas and potato soup for our table to share. I chased it with an Ecuadorian beer.

Probably my favorite part of this entire trip was the hotels we got to stay in. After our equator adventure, we headed to the village of Otavalo to Cabana del Lago. This is such a magical place right on a lake surrounded by mountains. We had our own cabin, complete with a fireplace.

There was lots of activities such as boating (though it was too cold), miniature golf, and even a pen with rabbits and guinea pigs that you could feed by hand. I was reassured they didn’t eat these (guinea pig is not an uncommon delicacy). Lil’ Man instantly made friends with a girl his age and they spent hours playing mini golf. A great deal of it was flooded due to all the rain but it didn’t slow them down. The hotel workers were quick to come to the rescue with pails to clear out as much water as possible.

We had a big buffet with Ecuadorian food for dinner.  We drank chocolate liquor and chatted over yucca chips until we retreated back to our cabins. The temperature had dropped considerably and I was a little afraid that our room would be cold. When
we entered I was happy to find that our fireplace was burning warm. There was an extra special touch in the bed. The hotel staff had not only started a fire, but also had placed a hot water bottle in my bed. At first I thought it was a little odd, but found myself cuddling with that most of the night listening to the frogs chirp outside and the fire crackle in the fireplace.
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Waterfalls and llamas

Today we drove down the old Pan-Am Highway. It’s essentially paved with cobblestone. It’s rough on the bladder after a few cups of strong Ecuadorian coffee. The rough ride was totally worth it. We went to Pegucha which is famous for waterfalls.

We walked through a small village where people were cooking on their front porches and stray dogs followed children around. This is the first place I realized the value of carrying wet wipes with me. In attempt to give my full bladder some relief I found a public restroom. It turns out that toilet paper is a precious commodity and very scarce in Ecuador.

We hiked up a steep path to the waterfall. Once again I felt the altitude reeking havoc on my
lungs. We couldn’t get super close to the waterfall, but we did get up to a nice view point.

A local was at the falls with two llamas. A girl asked if I would take a picture of her while she sat on the llama.  As she climbed onto the llama, and reared its head back and spit a green fat ball of phlegm right at me. I managed to dodge most of it and it hit my shoes. After I took her picture, I decided that the llama and I were going to have to be friends. I took a picture with him, but he wanted nothing to do with me.

Giving up on making a new friend, we headed to the market in Otavala. It is one of the largest in South America and run by the local Otavaleños. It covers several large blocks. I’ve never been very good at bartering, but it is expected here. We browsed various stalls for traditional goods such as hand-woven clothes and rugs, jewelry and more. I bought a watercolor painting from a woman who insisted that buying it would give her milk for her baby. She had a small baby wrapped around her. I loved the artwork. Lil’ man found a musical instrument for Lil’ Man. Since this was  my birthday trip,  Lil’ Man felt the need to buy me something. He got a few dollars from Karl and he felt like a rich kid. He quickly learned to ask “Cuantos?” which means how much. The locals seemed quite taken with him. I’m guess some of it had to do with his big blue eyes and big smile.

The heat became pretty intense so we stopped for a fresh coconut being sold from a vendor. We drank all the water then had the seller use her machete to chop it open so we could eat it.

Preface to an International trip

For the sanity of my kiddo and myself, I decided to break up the flight time for his first international trip. Our flight to Ecuador was scheduled to leave from the Miami airport on Saturday afternoon.  I booked our flight on Friday to Ft. Lauderdale from Kansas City because it was cheaper than flying into Miami. Due to a lot of saved up hotel points, I also booked our first night in Fort Lauderdale.

We took an Uber from the airport to our hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. Uber has started carrying a U-shaped light in their car windows, and you can choose the color you want it to display so it’s easier to spot. (I actually really like this idea and I hope it catches on in other cities).

I noticed immediately that my driver had a very heavy French accent. He told me that he was from Haiti. My little man launched into conversation with him in French. They spent the next 15 minutes having a conversation, while I sat quietly, secretly wondering if they were talking about me. (On a side note, my son goes to a French language immersion school, so he is fluent).

What I didn’t count on for our night in Florida, is that every drunk college student in the US must’ve chosen our hotel to spend Spring Break because it is across the street from the beach. Fortunately, even though the sun was down the college students were on a mission at the bars intoxicating themselves, so we had the beach all to ourselves. I have a mad love affair with the ocean, but don’t get to see it often because I live in Kansas.
The last time I brought my son to the Atlantic Ocean to play, he broke his arm the day before so he never got to get in the water . We walked along the beach in the moonlight, and the temptation finally over took my son and he ended up soaked head to toe.

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We called it an early night, however, I didn’t get much sleep due to all of the partying in the hallways and rooms around us. Fortunately, my little sidekick can sleep through anything. We got up early in order to enjoy the the water before our flight. We stopped by a nearby store and grabbed donuts and coffee to enjoy on the beach. We spent the next few hours jumping in the waves and playing in the sand. We returned to our hotel room just before check out so that we could clean up and head to the airport in Miami to catch our flight to Ecuador.

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I had intended on taking the Tri-Rail to Miami because it seemed like the most affordable way to transport between cities at $5.00 per person. I ordered an Uber to go from our hotel to the Tri-rail. The Uber was going to cost about $15 just to get to the Tri-Rail. On a whim, I asked the Uber driver how much it would cost for him to just drive us to Miami. It was $36. The convenience of not having to jump on and off with baggage and wait on schedules (not to mention an Uber is quicker) it seemed worth the extra six dollars.